Make Hong Kong a smoking-free territory to improve people's health
Updated: 2016-06-06 07:59
By Paul Surtees(HK Edition)
With the World No Tobacco Day just passed, now would be a good moment to review just how far Hong Kong is falling behind other jurisdictions in seeking to limit the occurrence of smoking, and to consider what more could be done to bring Hong Kong up to the latest global standards by introducing stronger anti-smoking measures.
Such measures are not proposed specifically to deprive regular smokers of their pleasure; rather, they are intended to severely limit the occurrence of smoking with a view to saving the lives of those addicted to this seriously dangerous habit. The use of tobacco products kills more people every year than any other product on the legal market. Measures are needed to limit the number of cigarettes smoked by regular users; to limit youth uptake of this deadly habit; and to encourage smokers to quit - for the sake of their own health, and that of the people around them (who can also be made ill, by passive smoking).
It has recently been announced that New Zealand, with a population of some 4.5 million (a smaller number than Hong Kong with just over 7 million) intends to work toward becoming smoker-free by 2025. It plans to gradually but greatly increase the cost of buying a packet of cigarettes, by increasing the taxes on tobacco products, as one way of pricing cigarettes out of the market for many New Zealanders. It is estimated that about 5,000 New Zealanders die each year from the deadly ill effects of smoking: It is to limit such a dreadful but avoidable death rate that those stern tax measures are to be introduced there.
It is noted that these days in Hong Kong, the prevalence of smoking is highest among the less-educated sectors of our society. Construction site workers may not choose to spend money on protecting themselves by wearing protective boots or other safety equipment, but many a worker goes about his demanding physical tasks with a cigarette propped almost permanently between his lips. It is sad to see such lowly paid workers devoting an inordinate proportion of their earnings to buying cigarettes. Were a packet of cigarettes to be taxed at a far higher level here in Hong Kong, they might be dissuaded into buying fewer of them, thereby reducing the chances of their tobacco addiction killing them. If cigarettes became as financially unreachable as buying caviar or vintage champagne for these people, the incidence of smoking would surely greatly decline.
Almost 3,000 people meet their deaths every day on the mainland from a range of ghastly smoking-caused illnesses. The Beijing city authorities have bravely instituted a smoking ban in public areas. But, in a vast country with an estimated 320 million regular smokers, the challenge is to find ways to effectively enforce that ban, which so far is widely flouted. Nevertheless, the Beijing approach could usefully be emulated in other parts of China - including here in Hong Kong. Transport interchanges have recently seen the introduction of smoking bans in Hong Kong. Such prohibitions - if effectively enforced - could usefully be extended to all public areas here, as Beijing has already done.
Here in Hong Kong, it is already illegal to smoke inside a restaurant, bar or coffee shop. However, lax enforcement means that many local places simply ignore the ban, and actually encourage smoking by providing ashtrays on the tables within their establishment. The common practice here of restaurants setting tables just outside their frontages with ashtrays is a blatant encouragement to smokers. Furthermore, the smoke wafts inside, thus polluting the air and potentially poisoning the customers seated inside. Staff members are also thereby exposed to dangerous health risks. That widespread problem needs to be addressed by vigorous enforcement of the laws to prohibit smoking anywhere near restaurant frontages.
Greater use of pictures of horrible-looking smoking-caused diseases on cigarette packets could also serve to deter people from taking up the habit, or at least to limit the prevalence of smoking. More talks and showing of videos to school pupils on the known health risks of smoking would also play an important role in helping deter youngsters from ever taking up the habit.
When I was a 7-year-old child in England, I asked to try one of my uncle's cigarettes. He wisely gave me one to smoke, which of course made me sick - as he expected. As a result, I never felt tempted to try another one. Such negative conditioning can be very effective. Greater availability of cessation services, supporting those who would like to cut down or give up smoking, should be made more widely available.
The writer is a veteran commentator and university lecturer in Hong Kong and active in meaningful local civil societies.
(HK Edition 06/06/2016 page8)